Travels with Maryanne - In Search of Local Food 

I love to travel. There's something special about visiting a place for the first time. The architecture, the landscape, the history, the people and of course the local cuisine, fascinate me.

I've been fortunate enough to travel extensively throughout North America and Europe. I've even been able to climb the Great Wall of China and see the ruins of the ancient Thai capital, Ayutthaya. 

Local cuisines fascinate me. A long time ago I learned to eat where the locals eat. This sometimes takes a bit of an effort. Tour operators and hotels automatically send you to places where you get a version that's - well - bland, overpriced and something locals wouldn't eat.

Venture out yourself. Read the menus. Are the choices a representative sample of local food? Take a look at how crowded a restaurant is. Do the people inside look like they're enjoying themselves?

Once you're inside, the fun begins. Take a look at what the other patrons have ordered as you make your way to your table. Are a lot of people having the same thing? Maybe there's a specialty.

Menu studying is critical. None of this "I'll look at the menu only until I find the first thing I like." Selecting something to eat is only one objective.

I look to see what local ingredients are used. How are they combined? What are they served with? How are they prepared? I often make notes in the trusty little pad that I carry in my purse. Could I make this at home?

And then, the moment of truth: my meal arrives. Is this the way I envisioned it? I make a mental note about how the chef plated it. This is very useful if you replicate the dish. I say, "why not serve it like the pros do?"

What do my taste buds tell me? Do I taste those local ingredients? Are they sweet? Sour? Hot? Mellow? 

I ask myself: "Self, are you pleased?" If I'm not, I figure out why. It might be a simple change that I would do at home. For instance, I don't like peas, so I leave them out when I cook.

If I can't figure out what an ingredient is or how something is made, I ask. Sometimes the waitstaff doesn't know, but they'll almost always find out and report the information back to me. Chefs are usually thrilled that someone is interested. I've gotten many good tips and learned interesting techniques this way. 

I try to write down my thoughts fairly soon after I eat. What's clear as a bell right now tends to get cloudier after a few days and especially after a few more meals.
And now, I'll share a little secret. I take home more than memories. No trip is complete without a stop at the local grocery store. I've been doing this for years. 

There's no better place to find those local ingredients. Yes, you might find some of these things at a specialty store back home, but the odds are good they'll cost just a fraction locally. Often you'll find things that you can't buy at home.

Here are a few examples of some of the culinary treasurers I've brought home.

Alaska: smoked salmon, reindeer sausages
Florida: key limes
Hawaii: miso, rice sheets (used in making Vietnamese summer rolls), star anise, Kona coffee, macadamia nuts
New Mexico: hot red chili pods, ground chipotle powder, corn husks, pinon nuts
Philadelphia: scrapple, Taylor pork roll
Quebec and Vermont: maple syrup
Texas: pecans

England: tea
France: pastis*
Granada: nutmeg, vanilla
Italy: Campari
Spain: saffron
Sweden: lingonberry, cloudberry, aquavit*
Thailand: curry paste (red, green, yellow), coconut milk
Venezuela: coffee

Now you've got another thing to do while on a trip. And, it's something the guidebooks never mention. 

The next time you spend a little time away, relax, eat well and come back full of great innovative ideas that you can enjoy for years to come.

Bon App
étit et Bon Voyage!

A word of caution: If you're leaving the country, look up the food and agricultural restrictions that apply before you go. Generally, you won't be allowed to bring back fruits, vegetables and raw meats. You can bring in packaged goods, however. So, instead buying of cloudberries in Stockholm, I bought cloudberry jam.

* A frontier city (e.g. Port Bou, Spain; Ventimiglia, Italy) is the best place to buy local alcoholic beverages. Prices are even lower than at the duty-free store at an international airport.